The Moonbase: Episode One
So Troughton’s had a pretty good run so far, and you’d have thought his status would only be cemented by the reintroduction of the foe his previous incarnation encountered at the South Pole. Which it was… at the time. The Moonbase was the highest rated of his stories (every episode attracted more than 8 million viewers, still significantly less than Hartnell at his peak) and introduced the most iconic design of the Cybermen. It also reinforced the template for Season Five (by using the one set by The Tenth Planet). Troughton’s Doctor also seems tempered, his zaniness and anarchic tangents giving way to a more stable, defined leadership role.
Better prepare for coffee-making, Poll.
Give Gerry Davis his due, I rated the novelisation highly when as a kid. It was one of the first I bought and it had that evocative, mythic (and inaccurate) prologue on the origins of the Cybermen. And Jamie’s delirium over the Phantom Piper was quite effective. Listening to the audio version a year or two back, I was less impressed by it (Nick Briggs’s Cybervocals definitely didn’t help). Perhaps because the shortcomings of the screen version, and the plot holes you could fly a Cybersaucer through, were foremost in my mind. Kit Pedler may have been a go-to source for brainstorming sci-fi concepts, but he was rubbish at narrative coherence. And at any attempt at characterisation beyond crude stereotypes. And I don’t get the impression his science was all that up to scratch either…
Quilted spacesuits were all the rage in the summer of ’70.
The opening sequence of the arrival on the Moon is fairly leisurely, but manages to abruptly shunt Jamie out of the frame (he’s the Nyssa of this season) with a knock on the noggin when he leaps over a crater. His “We’ll maybe meet the Old Man of the Moon” is quite sweet, and it’s at least in character.
Unlike Ben, who is already proving that his intelligence and knowledge increases dramatically whenever Pedler gets a sniff of him (in The Tenth Planet there’s always the excuse that he was filling in for a partly absent Hartnell; not so here). He comments that the Doctor has landed “only 200 million miles out” from where he planned to take them.
It seems the Doctor has four spacesuits in his chest. The spacesuits themselves aren’t too bad a design; the helmets at least are quite original. And the larks on wires approximating the low gravity of the Moon surface are quite ambitious. Perhaps NASA was taking notes of where this was less than successful when they faked the Moon landing footage. In the model shots, the Cybersaucer looks ridiculously close to the TARDIS.
Exhibit A: don’t-give-a shit-model work.
With the injured Jamie taken into the Moonbase, it isn’t long before the rest of the companions follow. It’s around this point that the shortcomings of the setting start to become noticeable. The base reminds me a bit of those scaled down Star Wars toys, where about three figures could fit in the Millennium Falcon.
About as convincing is the array of characters we are introduced to. The Lloyd era’s nod to a multicultural future is rather backhanded, as every nationality turns out to be a cliché. Andre Maranne’s Benoit is so French he wears a cravat while Nils is “our mad Dane”. Benoit, being a filthy Frenchman, starts ogling Polly as soon as she walks in. Patrick Barr’s Hobson has a nicely line in weary authority (this quickly wears thin), but his character will be all-too prevalent in this era, at any base or controlled environment where the Doctor fetches up (and there are quite a number).
Too much coffee will be the death of you.
The inanity of the infection afflicting the crew will only become more acute as the story progresses, but no one seems overly panicked that men are being covered in great spidery veins. Because Dr. Evans was the first to fall ill, the rest (all scientists) seem at a loss when it comes to looking into the cause. It’s evident that this hasn’t been going on for long; Hobson refers to three men falling ill in the last few hours. There seems to be a complete lack of procedure or rigour in dealing with it.
So it’s lucky that the Doctor arrives. Hobson is far more welcoming than General Cutler was. There’s no suspicion of the Doctor voiced, which is unusual, and one can only assume from the conversation that Earth has colonies elsewhere and that non-government space travel is in operation. As we’d expect by now, the Doctor quickly identifies the purpose of the base and the general period (he guesses 2050).
Hobson: We’ve got a proper Rip Van Winkle here. It’s 2070 in case you’d like to know.
I don’t think the previous Doctor would have been accused of being a smelly old tramp, but that’s effectively what Hobson comes out with when he tells the Doctor and Ben that “You could do with an extra bacteria check by the look of you.”
More magnificent model work.
I supposethe introduction of the purpose of the base is fairly well handled, and the idea of a weather control station isn’t a bad one (so good they’ll used it twice). The idea of a crew who have to man it round the clock, through fatigue or illness, is believable too, suggesting air traffic controllers. And Pedler has thought about logistics enough to have the Doctor explain a dimming of the lights as an artificially created day/night cycle. But the presentation is mostly amateur, as if it’s been constructed in a less than watertight manner because, after all, this is just for kids. They’ve got a scary monster to reveal, who cares if the characters are silly and the plot makes no sense? All anyone will remember is the monster.
That’s our mad Dane, bottom left.
So elements are introduced with no thought for how characters should really respond. First the illness, then the news that the base’s transmissions are being monitored (our first sign of a redesigned Cyberarm). As such, the dialogue has an eye on the audience. Nils comments, “Monitored by someone. Or something” with no particular reason to assume that there’s a “thing” out there. There’s also the reference to “momentary drops in air pressure” but it will be more fun to discuss that in a future episode.
The Doctor gets to investigate the cause of the illness, which he quickly realises is not all that it seems.
The Doctor: It’s not like a real disease at all. It’s almost as if…
Polly is called on to play nurse and to scream. Her comment, “It can’t be nice to him” regarding the electronic doctor attending to Jamie is about as much insight as she’s allowed. Ben gets to ask Hobson (who seems to take an instant dislike to him) if there’s anything he can do and is asked to clear up coffee cups and help in the food store. Of course, Polly will be on coffee duty before long but rather than suggesting an Alienesque lived-in future the domestic needs tend to render everything rather twee and silly.
I’m about to expire but first I’ll leave you a cryptic clue.
The most effective moments come from the menacing Cyberman in the base. Lurking behind the Debayo in the food store, it is suggested by shadow and an arm, rather than a full reveal. Likewise, when we see Jamie tossing restlessly as the Phantom Piper nears him at the cliffhanger. The monsters of the era seem to consciously attract more mythic trappings (later re-emphasised with the mummy-esque tombs, the Yeti), and this is one such example, with Jamie seeing technology as a supernatural force come to get him. Unfortunately, this is framed by ridiculous plotting for the story as a whole. The previously unconscious Evans rouses long enough to utter “The silver hand” as if he’s an extra from a Hammer Horror. Only to then pass out (or die? Are they effectively reanimated corpses?)
So what’s in the bag? Shredded paper? Hay? Polystyrene balls?
Polly very nearly sees a Cyberman (“Something just went out of that door”), but who knows what she was doing when it replaced the doctor’s body with a bale of hay. That may have been while she was asleep, to be fair, but the tiny sickbay with no corners to hide in undermines the idea of a Cyberman roaming about bodysnatching; it beggars belief that he would not be chanced upon at any moment. Does the Cyberman think that sticking something under the covers is a good idea anyway? Won’t that just spell out that foul play is involved (do they think people will decide that the doctor recovered, went for a stroll and didn’t want anyone to know?) What’s the deal with the stealth infiltration anyway? If a Cyberman is on the base he could probably take out 19 crewmen with ease.
Likewise, Hobson deciding that the companions are responsible for the absent doctor is ludicrously overstated. He should be in Scooby Doo.
Hobson: And you better find that doctor’s body or out you all go, quarantine or no quarantine.
Basically, this has become very silly before the end of the first episode. It seems all the more so because it’s taking itself so seriously.
Of course, the silver hand!
The cliffhanger underlines that this Cyberman is dicing with discovery. The Doctor pops out for a minute. Polly nips off to get Jamie some water. One of them might return at any moment. So the Cyberman lumbers in to grab Jamie. Silly Cyberman.
I toyed with giving this ***, but it’s so ham-fisted it doesn’t deserve it. The appearance of the Cyberman at the cliffhanger is worth the wait, as the redesign packs a punch that the Mondasians didn’t (that’s not to say they aren’t good in their own way, but they aren’t iconic), but the script is neither carefully constructed nor logically thought through.
And, while Morris Barry’s direction is intermittently decent (the limited presentation of the Cybermen), he works against believability by shooting cramped sets as cramped sets (it seems that a character can only see as far as the frame allows; anything outside of it may as well be another location). It’s left to The Tenth Planet stock music to build up atmosphere.